A high-profile lawsuit over an aluminium smelter in Tajikistan has exposed the government of the former Soviet republic as well as the English litigation system to scrutiny as a murky tale of oligarchs, KGB-trained moles, alleged corruption and secret families plays out in the High Court.
Fifteen years ago, in the midst of Tajikistan’s five-year civil war, corpses were found on the premises of the smelter – now known as Tajik Aluminium Company, or Talco – nearly every day.
With the central Asian nation now struggling to win investment while half its 7m population remains mired in poverty, the Talco case is proving even more lurid than most observers expected as both sides try to make their mud stick.
The dispute, already one of the most expensive cases in English legal history with lawyers’ fees topping $125m (£78m), centres on Talco’s allegations that the smelter’s former manager and its main supplier conspired to divert more than $500m in profits between 1996 and 2004.
The huge plant, located about 30 miles outside the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, has never been a natural site for an aluminium smelter, much less for the jewel in the industrial crown of a nation with a gross domestic product of just $3.7bn in 2007.
Alumina, the raw material used to make the metal, must be transported along the Black Sea to Georgia before crossing the Caspian Sea by boat, winding across the borders of a series of former USSR states before finally entering Tajikistan.
Lawyers for the two main defendants – Abdukadir Ermatov and Avaz Nazarov, both members of the Uzbek ethnic minority that comprises about 25 per cent of Tajikistan’s population – claim that they kept the plant up and running after a long-running and violent conflict that claimed as many as 100,000 lives and left 1m people homeless.
Talco’s legal team, by contrast, claims that Mr Ermatov was bribed with cash and a expensive property, including flats for an alleged secret second family in Moscow, to enter into inflated alumina contracts with companies controlled by Mr Nazarov.
Also a significant player in the conspiracy, says Talco, was Oleg Deripaska and his Rusal group, the world’s largest aluminium company.
Somewhat problematically, it has already been revealed that Rusal was actually funding the Talco litigation before falling out with the Tajik government and deciding to settle with the defendants.
Talco is now suing Rusal in the British Virgin Islands.
“It is nice to know that in these straitened times the lawyers are looking all right,’’ Mr Justice Tomlinson, the senior commercial judge hearing the case, said last week.
Whether the reputation of a fragile and impoverished nation will remain intact remains to be seen.